Frank Robertson column photo

Frank Robertson

I felt optimistic about getting ready for winter this year, about watching a fresh breeze blow dead leaves off a maple tree and wondering how much time I’ve got left.

“This is it,” I thought, grateful for the arrival of cold weather in December and anticipating winter as a gift, a break from the prolonged autumnal angst of hot days, wild fires and life without power.

It’s hard to believe our yard was under a couple of feet of water just a few months ago when the Russian River filled our basement and was flowing three feet deep down the street. We were still dealing with the flood’s aftermath when fire season suddenly arrived, along with mandatory evacuation orders and the power shut off.

“Wait a minute,” I thought. “We’re still recovering from winter. I’m not ready.”

It seems like we’re in weather readiness mode all the time now at our house, but ready for what? A disaster that requires us to shelter in place eating canned beans by flashlight? Or run for our lives with a few valuables in the car?

I know it sounds a little callous, but at least disasters provide an abrupt opportunity to deal with household clutter, which in my case is an impending disaster demanding a rescue or emergency help. I’m at a point in my existence as a habitual American consumer that I really don’t want or need any new stuff, but the junk still piles up. Why do we have so many coffee cups stored on a shelf in the basement? And a dozen old dog beds? The dogs are long gone, but their beds still sit waiting, unused on a shelf in the basement. We could start a pet shop with our old dog collars, bowls and balls that squeak.

How many cans of tile grout we really need? How many hammers and screwdrivers? How many wine corks? How many drawers full of mittens, old vitamin pills, keys, rubber bands and paper clips? How many boxes full of Sunset magazines? How many broken stereo speakers, tape players and cell phones? How many old eyeglass frames?

I hang on to a lot of things, in other words, and it’s starting to show. I live in a small house where it’s a challenge to find storage space. When something new comes in, something old has to go out. But what?

When you have stuff that’s been piling up for years, and you’re trying to figure out what to do with it before it buries you alive, you need to keep an open mind about the plus side of a disaster. In that context, fires may be more efficient. They leave only ashes. Floods leave everything still there, wet, smelly and unusable.

I know the new normal means disastrous weather can arrive any day, but this winter’s onset seemed to offer an escape, a respite from the anxieties of climate change, global warming and the nagging new guilty feeling that I’m helping destroy the planet when I eat a hamburger.

“There are two ways to think about this,” author Jonathan Franzen wrote recently in the New Yorker regarding the apocalyptic ramifications of climate change and human consumerism. We can pretend that catastrophe is preventable, said Franzen, “or accept that disaster is coming and begin to rethink what it means to have hope.”

Simply hoping that humanity will join hands to reduce greenhouse gas production may be a little unrealistic, says Franzen, who doubts we’ll be able to stop driving cars, eating beef, flying jets and having children.

Optimism may be getting harder to discern, says Franzen. Nevertheless, “Take heart in your small successes,” he advises in his essay, entitled “What If We Stopped Pretending?” It’s a hopeful piece, although some New Yorker readers wrote that Franzen was a pathetic defeatist.

“Get a flu shot,” I wrote on my winter prep to-do list. Last week I did it. I consider it a small success. So far.

Frank Robertson is a member of the Sonoma West Publishers staff.

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